Blogger Amy Koester

STEM Takes Flight: Airplane Science

A major trend I’ve noticed in my first year at my library: STEM programming for school-age children is guaranteed to pack our program room. In fact, our school-age science programming is loved and attended with the same verve as traditional heavy-hitters like American Girl and Star Wars. So we offer STEM programs as frequently as we can.

Photo by Amy Koester.

Most recently we explored the science of man-made flight with an Airplane Science program. Program prep didn’t require purchasing any supplies–paper airplanes are simple and cheap. Here’s what we did with our forty-five minutes of exploring flight, with plenty of room for modifications to suit your library and your patrons.

First, we talk about the science. I like to start STEM programs with a brief introduction to the scientific principles we’re exploring. I have everyone’s attention at the beginning of the program, and I focus that attention onto one or two main concepts–anything more is too like school. With regard to flight and airplanes, we hit two concepts:

  • Airplane Forces — with some help from a How Stuff Works diagram, we made educated guesses about what pulls planes in different directions

    Photo by Amy Koester.
  • Bernoulli’s Principle — after a simplified explanation, I demonstrated the principle at work by hovering a ping-pong ball with a hairdryer

After time for a few questions–and children always ask really pertinent, insightful, questions in my STEM programs–we wrapped up the background portion of our program.

Photo by Amy Koester.

Next, we get hands-on with the science. I think one of the reasons our science programs are so successful is because there is always a substantial hands-on activity where children get to make–to engineer–something. Since I tend to have groups of 20+ children at these programs, it is useful for the activity to be mostly self-guided. Our activity for airplane science was making paper airplanes. We had four stations with supplies and instructions for making four models of paper airplanes:

I should mention that I got most of these airplane designs from a Wonderopolis wonder of the day–I love Wonderopolis for program inspiration. Throughout our paper airplane construction time, I walked around the program room helping children as needed. I also encouraged them to make small changes to the airplane models to try to make their airplanes fly better. We had room to test planes during this time, and children could make as many models as they wanted in the twenty minutes we had.

Photo by Amy Koester.

We always end with science in action. This is the part of the program that usually most excites the children: seeing their creations put to the test of the science. Before the program, I had placed a starting line and marked out 25 feet at one-foot intervals with masking tape on our carpet. For this final activity of airplane science, each child got to stand at the starting line and throw their paper airplanes. Our observers helped me measure and record the distance of each plane and its model (arrow, dart, etc.) on our dry erase board. We tested over 70 paper airplanes! Some went far–24 feet was the record–and others dive-bombed, but every child had at least one decent performer. The not-so-great fliers met chuckles and exaggerated duck-and-cover motions from observers. Everyone had a great time seeing what planes flew best, and by the end children were guessing which models would perform well. How’s that for scientific observation and application?

I make sure every child has a chance to leave a STEM program with something in hand. Sometimes that just means having a display of books available relevant to our program theme, but for airplane science it meant also having additional paper airplane instructions and supplies to encourage further at-home testing. I had two children excitedly return to the library the next day to report back on planes they had tried at home. That’s the sort of enthusiasm and self-motivated learning that STEM programming can inspire.

Have you ever worked paper airplanes or the science of flight into one of your library programs? Do you think you’ll give this program a try? Sound off in the comments!


  1. Sharon McClintock

    This sounds like a fantastic program! Thanks for sharing the details!

  2. Lisa

    Fun and easy! I’ll try it. 🙂

  3. Panchapagesan Bharathan

    It looks like a fun and easy program. I plan to introduce the equations behind Bernoulli and flight dynamics to the mathematically inclined kids.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jonathan Latimer

    Hmm. This article certainly tickles my fancy. I would acquire such materials and apply this aeronautical origami.

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  6. Sara Patalita

    Hi, Amy! Thank you for such a fabulous breakdown. We are doing an Awesome Airplanes event this summer and I plan to borrow heavily from what you’ve done here. Do you still have the instructional signs you created, like the one shown above?×150.jpg
    I would love to use them! Thanks for considering it.

    1. Amy Koester

      My original signs were lost when my computer crashed, but I used images like these ones to create the signs originally:

      Hope that helps!

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  9. stephanie walford

    Hi Amy,
    this seems very interesting considering I love some traditional simple but complied origami.

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